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African History: The Zulu Wars

Updated on June 19, 2013

Zulu Warriors

The legendary Zulus were, until the arrival of the British, the most powerful nation in southern Africa.
The legendary Zulus were, until the arrival of the British, the most powerful nation in southern Africa. | Source

Background

In the early part of the 19th century, both the white farmers of Dutch descent, otherwise known as the Boers and the British harboured aspirations of imperial conquest and settlement in southern Africa. However, both would face an almighty obstacle, the mighty and now legendary Zulus.

The Zulus were once a rather small and peaceful tribe who lived in Zululand, which neighboured Natal in what is now eastern South Africa. The Zulu’s fortunes changed under legendary chief Shaka Zulu, who ascended into power in 1816. In a very short period of time he had transformed the Zulus into a large warring force. In a series of brutal campaigns he massacred other tribes or forced them to join him. Upon his death in 1828, his burgeoning empire reached almost as far north as Swaziland.

In 1814 the British took over the Cape Colony, home to the Boers. Twenty years later, living under British rule had become unworkable for the Boers and so around 12,000 of them moved northwards in search of a new homeland. The trekkers, to give them their proper name headed for Natal, hoping to negotiate the peaceful cession of some land from Chief Shaka’s successor, Chief Dingane.

War

On the 6th February 1838 a party of about 100 Boer trekkers led by Piet Retief approached the Zulu chief, Dingane, in Natal to discuss the cession of land. However, no discussions took place; instead, they were taken to Kwa Matiwane Hill and clubbed to death on the spot. Eleven days later Dingane’s warriors massacred hundreds of men, women and children at various trekker camp sites along the Bushmen River.

The trekkers fought back in the following months under their new leader, Andries Pretorius. Then, on the 15th December, when the trekkers crossed the Buffalo River, a scouting party reported the approach of a large Zulu force. Pretorius suspected that the Zulus were hoping to lure the trekkers into rocky terrain where the trekkers’ rifles would be least effective, so instead of moving into the attack he decided to pitch camp on open ground by the Ncome, or Blood River, with wagons drawn up in a protective circle, or laager.

At dawn the next day the Zulus launched a mass attack with some 10,000 men. But armed mainly with clubs and short stabbing spears- Shaka had ruled that the traditional Zulu throwing spears were cowards’ weapons- they faced a hail of rifle fire. For two hours the Zulus charged repeatedly, which led to Pretorius launching a counteroffensive with a group of horsemen. After suffering heavy losses, the Zulus fled, with the trekkers in pursuit. By nightfall Zulu casualties totalled 3000. Three trekkers had been wounded. The battle of Blood River, as it became known, was over.

Although the Boers established an independent Republic of Natalia in 1838, they continued to fight the Zulus in Natal for another two years, until Dingane’s brother, Mpande, joined forces with the Boers, bringing with him a large number of men. Dingane was finally defeated in January 1840, and was assassinated later in the year.

The Warrior King

A photograph of Cetshwayo taken around 1875, four years prior to his famous victory at Isandhlwana.
A photograph of Cetshwayo taken around 1875, four years prior to his famous victory at Isandhlwana. | Source

Two Mighty Nations Clash

The battle of Isandhlwana saw the mightiest nations of Europe and Africa clash for the first time, with rather surprising results considering the gulf in technology.
The battle of Isandhlwana saw the mightiest nations of Europe and Africa clash for the first time, with rather surprising results considering the gulf in technology. | Source

Zulu Dawn- The Battle of Isandhlwana On Film

20,000

The estimated number of Zulu warriors who surrounded, attacked and massacred the 1700 British troops who were encamped at Isandhlwana on the 22nd January 1879.

Massacre At Isandhlwana

The Republic of Natalia lasted only five years before the British took it over, forcing the Boers to move west and north. To the west they established the independent Orange Free State, and to the north the Transvaal republic.

But the British had not finished expanding their southern African territories. Anxious to claim territory before the Germans or Portuguese, in 1877 they annexed the Transvaal. The British government in London was anxious to avoid war with the Zulus, but in southern Africa the British High Commissioner, Henry Bartle Frere, and the commander of the British forces Lieutenant General Frederic Thesiger- soon to be Lord Chelmsford knew that sooner or later war would come: so it might as well be sooner. Gambling on a quick victory, and taking advantage of the slow communications between London and southern Africa, they took the initiative. Using a minor border incident as an excuse, they demanded that Zulu Chief Cetshwayo disband his army, knowing full well he would not.

Cetshwayo duly refused, and in January 1879 the British marched across the Buffalo River into Zululand at Rorke’s Drift, confident of success- far too confident, indeed, because Lord Chelmsford took only 4000 or so men with him. After pitching a small camp at Rorke’s Drift. Chelmsford established a second, larger camp at Isandhlwana on the 20th January, but did nothing to fortify it. Worse he let himself be lured away with 2500 troops by Zulu scouts, leaving 1700 men behind, including most of the 1st Battalion of the 24th regiment, with Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Pulleine in command. Chelmsford fatally underestimated the military abilities of the Zulu forces, 20,000 of whom on the 22nd January launched a typically disciplined attack on the British camp at Isandhlwana in their traditional encircling buffalo-horns-and-chest formation, under the commands of general Ntshingwayo and Mavumengwana. Although armed with a few rifles of their own, the Zulus still relied on the stabbing spear and club as their main weapons, and despite suffering 2000 casualties to both rifle and bayonet, by sheer weight of numbers they eventually overwhelmed the camp and slaughtered the British forces to a man.

The Defence Of Rorke's Drift

A painting showing the extraordinary defence of Rorke's drift by a small British force against overwhelming odds.
A painting showing the extraordinary defence of Rorke's drift by a small British force against overwhelming odds. | Source

Zulu- Rorke's Drift On Film

Defiance At Rorke's Drift

If Isandhlwana represented one of the worst defeats in British military history, what followed later the same day and all the following night at Rorke’s Drift has entered British military folklore. There, at the mission station, from behind hastily constructed ramparts made from wagons and grain bags, a small garrison of 139 men, led by Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers, held off 3000 Zulus led by Prince Dabulamanzi. At one point the two sides engaged in quite desperate hand to hand combat. The fighting lasted for ten hours, the Zulus finally withdrawing at dawn when they saw Lord Chelmsford’s relief column approaching in the distance.

British Medal Tally

Eleven Victoria crosses were awarded for gallantry at Rorke's Drift- the most ever awarded for a single action.
Eleven Victoria crosses were awarded for gallantry at Rorke's Drift- the most ever awarded for a single action. | Source

The Final Battle

The last battle of the Zulu Wars saw the British kill more than 10,000 Zulus with two rapidly repeating Gatling guns and artillery fire. The British victory brought the Zulu Wars to an end.
The last battle of the Zulu Wars saw the British kill more than 10,000 Zulus with two rapidly repeating Gatling guns and artillery fire. The British victory brought the Zulu Wars to an end. | Source

Cetshwayo's Last Stand

News of Isandhlwana outraged London. The British government sent reinforcements and Sir Garnet Wolseley was ordered to take over command from Chelmsford. Cetshwayo, meanwhile, was anxious to cease hostilities and end the slaughter. He knew that there would be no more Isandhlwanas for the Zulu nation. Chelmsford though rejected all peace overtures from Cetshwayo and was anxious to crush the Zulus before Wolseley could arrive and steal his thunder.

The showdown took place on the 4th July 1879, at the Zulu capital of Ulundi. Here, a British force of some 4200 men armed this time with two Gatling guns and artillery, as well as the usual rifles, formed a hollow square formation with mounted troops covering the sides and rear. At least 15,000 Zulus soon surrounded the awaiting British in typical horn formation, stamping their feet and banging their shields as one. But this time when they attacked, none get close enough to use a club or stabbing spear. Hundreds were killed by rifle and machine gun fire, or by canister shot. Many were then chased down by British cavalry, who exacted revenge for Isandhlwana by systematically butchering the wounded. The Zulus were routed, their chief was taken prisoner, and their nation was defeated.

Aftermath

After the battle of Ulundi, Cetshwayo was exiled to Cape Town and later visited Britain. The British allowed him to return home in 1883 as a client-king. Arguments between rivals for the throne led to civil war the same year. Cetshwayo was defeated once again at Ulindi and died in 1884. In 1897 Zululand became part of Natal which then joined the independent Union of South Africa in 1910.

While the British had managed to overcome the Zulu nation, there was still one threat to imperial rule in the form of the Boer states. In 1880 Transvaal rebelled against British rule and defeated the British in 1881 at Laing’s Neck and Majuba Hill before Britain recognised its independence. Britain, however, continued to pressurise Transvaal and the Orange Free State and in 1899 both republics declared war on Britain. After defeat in 1902, they eventually joined the Union of South Africa. In 1905 neighbouring Swaziland, under Transvaal’s control since 1895, became a British protectorate.

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    • profile image

      Cbierman 2 years ago

      The British could not take the Boers in combat. so they turned to other tactics.

      Very fond of their empire indeed

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yes, that's true. The British were very fond of their empire, so I can't imagine them withdrawing lightly.

    • EJ Lambert profile image

      EJ Lambert 4 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Oh, they would've had their successes against the British, but you also have to remember that Brits are notoriously dogged when they get involved in a conflict. I don't ever recall them actually withdrawing from any major war in their history.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      It's one of my favourites too EJ, as it 'Zulu Dawn' and the 'Man Who Would Be King.' I totally agree with you about Zulu conditioning. It often makes me wonder how the war would have turned out had the belligerents been on more of a level playing field in terms of technology and tactics. In my view, had such scenario occurred then the South Africa we know today probably wouldn't exist. Thanks for popping by.

    • EJ Lambert profile image

      EJ Lambert 4 years ago from Chicago, IL

      I read up on these guys and also watched some documentaries. As far as physical endurance in terms of movement and speed, they were among the best ever. Their conditioning was incredible. They were also very resilient in the face of casualties and ferocious in attack. The movie "Zulu" with Michael Caine is still one of my closet favorite action movies of all time.